Design Problems

By Evan Schuman  |  Posted 2004-08-06 Print this article Print

For software that is designed to be used by nervous consumers who ostensibly have had no training, some in the industry complain that it is typically too unforgiving and nonintuitive. "Many times, the checkout self-service kiosks do not function," said Norman McLeod, associate director in the market research department at InfoTrends Cap Venture, a job that has him overseeing retail technology research trends. Whats the real return on investment of self-checkout? Click here to read more.
"Customers try, and they have a frustrating experience. I dont know what it is about the kiosk business, but so many have a fundamental design problem," McLeod said. "What usually happens is that the customer finds that one item will not scan or they have an item that the automatic checkout cannot accommodate."
Retailers point out that customers—statistically—do a better job of properly identifying produce, for example, than does the typical cashier. The customer will know that its an organic McIntosh apple, even though the cashier may think it looks like a nonorganic Delicious. But will the customer be honest enough to volunteer that the fruit is the much-more-expensive organic version? Although some IBM self-checkout systems in Europe claim to be able to identify produce by smell, thats not a U.S. capability yet. Most systems require special bagging, labels and sometimes human intervention. Click here to read about identification by smell and other technologies that may someday appear in U.S. grocery stores. "The self-service kiosks are horrible at dealing with produce," McLeod said. And when the self-service system is confronted with an unexpected request, it gets rather grumpy, McLeod said. "One design issue that is very difficult to overcome is that it fundamentally cannot handle exception. If anything happens outside of its parameters, it wont work. For [self-service] to truly work, there need to be improvements upstream" at the interface design and programming end. Caroline McNally is the chief marketing officer at Pay By Touch, a company that makes biometric authentication devices that work with self-checkout systems. McNally said she discovered the interface challenges herself. "Where I live, there really isnt a lot of self-checkout," she said, but when she tried it while traveling one day, "I couldnt figure it out." As an executive involved in this segment, she said she experienced "this stupid factor" until an employee came over and offered some assistance. Check out eWEEK.coms Retail Center for the latest news, views and analysis of this vital industry.

Evan Schuman is the editor of's Retail industry center. He has covered retail technology issues since 1988 for Ziff-Davis, CMP Media, IDG, Penton, Lebhar-Friedman, VNU, BusinessWeek, Business 2.0 and United Press International, among others. He can be reached by e-mail at

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